Researchers have found in the first review of its kind that clocking miles on fitness trackers, pedometers, and smart watches increases physical activity and encourages users to walk up to 40 minutes more each day, resulting in an average of one kg (2.2 lb) of weight loss over five months.
The findings from the University of South Australia (UniSA) are a systematic review of almost 400 peer-reviewed studies involving 164,000 people across the world using wearable activity trackers.
It underlined the value of low-cost interventions to the growing epidemic of health conditions caused by inactive lifestyles, including heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancers, and mental illness.
Lead researcher and doctoral candidate Ty Ferguson said that the overall results from the studies they reviewed show that wearable activity trackers are effective across all age groups and for long periods of time.
“They encourage people to exercise on a regular basis, to make it part of their routine and to set goals to lose weight,” Ferguson said.
While one kilogram weight loss may seem insignificant, UniSA Professor and co-author of the review Carol Maher said that these were not weight-loss studies, but lifestyle physical activity studies, so dramatic weight loss wasn’t expected.
“The average person gains about 0.5 kilograms a year in weight creep so losing one kilogram over five months is significant, especially when you consider that two-thirds of Australians are overweight or obese,” Maher said.
Among BMI, blood pressure, cholesterol, waist circumference, and body weight, the trackers showed the most significant improvement in body weight and waist circumference—a reduction of up to 1.5 cm (0.6 inches).
Despite the popularity of wearable activity trackers, there is widespread scepticism within the scientific, medical, and general community about whether they may lead to obsessive behaviours and eating disorders.
A US-based study from Feb. 2022 reported that people who used physical activity trackers were linked to higher levels of eating concerns and binging behaviour.
The researchers concluded that further research is needed to examine if there are aspects of this technology that could be modified to reduce potential harm.
Senior lecturer of Bangor University Andrew McStay said that wearable activity trackers are essentially tracking technologies.
“The promise wearable technology offers is information: about consumers’ and patients’ behaviour, their health, and whether they stick to prescribed treatments,” he said.
If companies can understand our private health data, they have access to information that may sway the decisions we make and what also remains to be seen is where that data ends up.
For people desiring weight loss or better health, they have other options such as sit-stand desks, walking meetings, and physical activity groups in the community, as in the era of the step-tracker craze, getting moving is what matters.